The rise and fall of Patton Boggs
There were a few plying the dark arts of lobbying in Washington before it, but Patton Boggs was in some ways the original modern lobbyist shop. A D.C. law firm with its roots in the old Washington aristocracy — and in Washington “aristocracy” is mostly a polite term for nepotism-ocracy — Patton Boggs had a winning pedigree. Thomas Hale Boggs Jr. was the son of a long-serving Louisiana Democratic congressman, a former House majority leader and a member of the Warren Commission who bequeathed his seat in Congress to his wife upon his death; Boggs mère held the seat for nearly 20 years before Bill Clinton eventually made her the ambassador to the Holy See. So, Mom and Dad were in the House, and his sister Cokie Roberts (that’s Mary Martha Corinne Morrison Claiborne Roberts, née Boggs) happily does the Democrats’ business in the media, while another sister served as mayor of Princeton. Mr. Boggs himself made a run at a House seat in 1970, just four years after leaving Lyndon Johnson’s White House to join James R. Patton Jr.’s law firm. The my-dad-was-in-Congress model worked splendidly in the early days, that golden age when, as Mr. Boggs would later put it, there were only “fifteen people who ran the government.” The most successful lobbyists formed what the Washington Post would describe as a “cult,” and Mr. Boggs was that unholy congregation’s pontifex maximus.
Like many high priests before him, Mr. Boggs was quick to see the value of a specialized language in which only initiates were fluent, in this case the increasingly technical language of federal law. Mr. Boggs played a small role in helping to launch the explosion in the size and scope of the federal government during his time in the Johnson administration, and then he surfed the wave he’d helped create to a position of immense wealth and power. He knew that the boutique lobbyist shop — generally run by a former federal-agency head or a member of a political family such as himself — was soon to be a thing of the past. What was needed, he calculated, was a lobbying operation integrated into a sophisticated and diversified law firm, so that the highly specialized lawyer sitting on the government side of the desk was facing a highly specialized lawyer with the same technical knowledge and subject-matter mastery. Lobbying was to be not about trading or simply suborning favors, but about having a hand in writing the law itself, whether in the form of legislation or of regulation.